Saturday, May 26, 2007

Pirate Update, etc.

Sad, isn't it?

While I'm at it, here are some additional updates:

  • I received a pass on my dissertation proposal.
  • Noir said that the fallout from his prom night strip bar debacle was not as bad as he had feared.
  • Zen sitting requires work.
  • I'm still not drinking.
  • Glasses Girl has not made frequent reappearances, but it does happen occasionally.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Apparently, no one wants to attend my development’s Pirates of the Caribbean party.

Along with a number of retirees and families with small children, I live in a townhouse community. Rather than a neighborhood, this part of Miami comprises a series of strip malls and condominium complexes. The occasional mangrove pond and canal punctuate the cement landscape. Traffic is heavy.

Living here means surrendering to suburban alienation, and the heat heightens the sense of anonymity; who wants to stop and chat when it’s 100 degrees out and humid? I read before that air conditioning may have contributed to the decline of Southern hospitality. There might be something to this theory.

Genuine community tries to sprout up here and there, like a microscopic plant on a hostile planet. Not surprisingly, cool water is often involved. One development closer to the university, for example, has a pool shaped like a penis; my MFA-seeking friend showed it to me. Some current inhabitants congregate around it on the weekends, but she doesn’t. “I hate that shit,” she says.

My local clubhouse definitely exudes its own 70s porn aesthetic. It’s brown, beige, and geometric. The pool (not penis-shaped) is behind the building. Its lights are white and globular. The hot tub’s tiles are aqua and cracked.

Inside, the clubhouse offers function rooms, a ping pong table, soda machines, and the requisite Floridian fake palms as well as paintings offering “realistic” ocean views (two examples).

Occasionally, the steering committee plans a clubhouse event, like a Mexican fiesta or a Halloween party. To kick off the summer, it has proposed a pirate party (click to enlarge):

Why do I feel like this gathering has the potential to resemble a decoupage of deleted scenes from Boogie Nights and Cocoon?

This flyer radiates zeal. It intimidates me, and it raises more questions than it answers. Will I be ostracized if I don’t dress up? What if some unsuspecting, hard-living resident reads it and reflects sadly, “I left all my pirate stuff in the Caribbean. In Aruba, actually, along with a disposable camera, some whipped cream, and my dignity.” (Flights from here to the islands are cheap, baby. What happens at the Holiday Inn SunSpree stays at the SunSpree.)

The price point also piques me. How can I possibly enjoy the bounty of a carving station, a pasta bar, AND a drink—with alcohol in it, no less—for a mere 18 dollars? Have these libations fallen off a truck instead of arriving plundered from the high seas? I can’t even get a Southwest Salad, an Awesome Blossom, and a Calypso Cooler for under twenty bucks.

The pasta is from Italy. Fair enough. The fajitas are from Spain. Fajitas are Tex-Mex, but okay. The cargo of beef, on the other hand, seems to have no origin whatsoever. Ominous.

Why is four the cut-off age for paid admission? Who determined that five year-old Becky is likely to eat 12 dollars’ more her weight in mystery meat than four year-old Carlos is?

Do you hear something sizzling? It’s the slow charring of misdirected passion and the gradual crisping of misbegotten enthusiasm.

By contrast, the follow-up flyer is rather stern:

Avast ye, lads, I spot a foundering promotion on the horizon.

Maybe we need carrot instead of stick. Could each resident be promised a souvenir laminated gold doubloon for his/her trouble? We must have something worthwhile to coax us out of our central air mausoleums and away from our home theatres and message boards.

Perhaps the leadership should manufacture a scarcity—the party vessel has all the mateys that will fit onboard already; everyone else must stow away.

Money will be refunded?? That’s not piratey. I suggest that they put the profits instead towards some new floating noodles for the pool. All seafaring community scoundrels, when they do venture out, enjoy those.

Sunday, May 13, 2007


I did not take my undergraduate commencement seriously. My mother and father did; they dressed formally and exchanged friendly words. We walked through the Common and the Garden afterwards, and we ate a fancy Italian dinner at Davio’s on Newbury Street. The May afternoon was bright. The restaurant’s roll butter was firm and cool. A fresh slice of lemon accompanied each glass of ice water.

I was eager for the pomp to conclude. I had my real life to get back to: my bookstore job, my friends, the pubs, the trips to Singing Beach. It never occurred to me to move home after graduation. I belonged in Somerville; Mom and Dad belonged in Havertown and Woodbury. They had birthed me, fought over me, and sent me to school. I was free of them now, or at least I wanted to be.

Although I’d been accepted to a few four-hat schools (the ranking system the Princeton Review directory used), I chose the three-hat one. During my stay, I changed majors once, significant boyfriends twice, and apartments three times. I journaled a lot and studied a little. I visited my family on Christmas and called them on their birthdays. They came to Boston more often.

A few years later, I wandered into graduate school—I liked to read and write more than I liked to do anything else. I also developed a fondness for professors’ praise. These seemed like good enough reasons to get an MA and a PhD.

It was convenient and simple to get my Masters up north, but for the PhD, I had to look elsewhere. Before leaving Boston, I told my father over the phone that my part-time college teaching was going well (it was). He was so proud of me, he said. He died of a heart attack a handful of days later. He never got to hear about the doctoral scholarship, the one Mom was so impressed with. She contracted a brain tumor six months after I received it.

I took a brief leave of absence from the program after she died. I sat in the whirlpool next to my neighborhood clubhouse a lot. If I kept my eyes on a particular spot, all I could see was palms and bougainvillea. I could forget the inhospitable city surrounding them.

I moved my husband and our two cats away from the city we loved, and I’ve stranded us in Miami with no exit strategy. I’ve been pursuing the PhD for four years now. I have read, and I have written. I have haphazardly chosen a research topic, and I get the impression that I have not lived up to my department’s expectations. With each semester, I want to do this work less and less.

(I want us to go home. I don’t know where that is.)

Next week, I will submit another draft of my prospectus. I sat across from my adviser in her office on Friday afternoon, listening to what kinds of questions she’s planning to ask during the oral exam. Her office is green and dusty, and she enjoys a view of the tall banyan trees. Some of the questions sounded easy, others hard, but none of them truly registered. In my head, I was whispering, “I don’t care! I don’t care!”

She asked if I would consider asking another professor to serve on my committee. Her implicit goal is to recuse herself, I think. She’s wanted to do this for a long time—I’m simply not her cup of tea.

If my parents hadn’t died, and if I had gotten my PhD during some future May, perhaps Patrick and I would have taken them to La Palme D’Or at the Biltmore to celebrate. My mother would have oohed and aahed over the intricate ceiling patterns, and my father would have ordered an extra portion of Kobe beef. I would have held Patrick’s hand under the table. I would have enjoyed the hazelnut mousse cake and the candlelight, and I would have thought about how wonderful everything was.

My adviser wanted to know if I had anything else to discuss. I told her no. You need to schedule a seminar room for the exam, she mentioned as she flipped through papers and lifted the receiver of her phone. She said I had better go right away and check with the department secretary—the whole campus is closing at three today.

It’s Commencement.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Food and Beverages Only


Noir attended his prom last Friday night.

He and four friends rented a Miami Beach hotel room for their after-party (these kids hang out on Miami Beach all the time, but a hotel is a special extravagance). All of the parents agreed to this plan, including Noir’s mother, but she insisted on one caveat—that he not leave the hotel at any point during the evening.

Noir’s mother does not tolerate underage drinking. The other parents know she’s a little puritanical, so they chose to conceal from her that the boys might have a drop of alcohol as a part of their celebration. One parent, in fact, warned the kids that Mrs. Noir planned to stop by the room with sandwiches for them, so if they were keeping anything untoward inside, they had better hide it quickly.

Noir had a fine time. His date left around 3:30 in the morning—her parents picked her up. He was buzzed and feeling good. 5:30 rolled around, and someone suggested that they go to a strip bar. Noir acceded.

It’s unclear whether he would have done so if he had not been compromised—another kid I tutor refers to Noir as a wuss.

They walked to the place from the hotel. It’s 18+. There’s a cover charge but no alcohol. Noir spent a total of $47: $20 to get in and $27 on drinks and snacks.

He found himself out of money. He did not have his credit card with him, just his ATM. He asked the waiter how the charge would register. “Food and Beverages only,” the man said.

That was not the case. The strip bar’s name printed out on the receipt as clearly as St. Bernard’s conscience, along with an address and a phone number.

Noir now feels that he should have given this whole thing a little more thought.

His mother found the indicting slip of paper yesterday morning. He told her that he and the other guys had gone out to breakfast. She scowled but accepted this answer. This is when I arrived for our two-hour tutoring appointment. Noir looked distracted and told me he had to go to the bathroom. I waited patiently in a dining room chair poorly upholstered in heavy white damask. I sipped the cup of coffee the family always had ready for me.

He returned and attempted to write the practice essay I gave him; he takes his English final this week. It was not a difficult prompt: “Discuss the role that loyalty plays in three of this semester’s literary works.” He exhaled deeply and looked pale. I asked him what was wrong.

“I am so screwed!” he blurted out.

He told me the story then, right up to the minute. Instead of going to the bathroom, he had confessed the terrible truth to his mother. He had been afraid that if he didn’t, she would call the place in question, anyway (she’s like that). He apologized to her, and she told him to leave her alone.

“She’s going to start crying,” he mumbled, “I wish she would just yell at me instead.” He shifted in his seat and looked down. I wondered if I should leave.

“No one else’s parents would care,” he protested. “My father definitely wouldn’t care.” He twisted the two rubber bands around his wrist.

He’s probably right. Everyone else would probably adopt a boys-will-be-boys attitude. His grandparents didn’t seem overly upset. He told his abuela what happened while she worked in the kitchen. She just smiled and put a sad hand on his shoulder.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said a lot. I was sorry. She would get over it. It would be ten times worse if he was her daughter. I mentioned that I didn’t think my parents approved of anything I did when I was 18. I remarked that while that I admired and respected his mother, it seemed that she needed to let go of him. She would keep him a child forever if she could.

All of this was probably inappropriate of me to say. But the tutoring session was a wash, and I could feel his upset so concretely from across the table.

I feel divided there. Like his mother, I know what it is to want to shelter him (he has long been my favorite student). But, like Noir, I'm also all too familiar with what it is to have an overbearing, controlling, smothering parent.

He’s going to college next year, the one up the street, and he has elected to live at home instead of in the dorm. “Maybe you should consider moving out,” I said.

“I’m all she has,” he said resignedly. “I can’t leave.”

I recommended that he find a way to get a car one night during this week in order to bring her dinner at the office. She works very hard for him; her money, after all, had bought the food and beverages only at the “filthy place” of which she disapproved.

I wished him good luck when I left. He thanked me.

On the drive home, I decided I would not revisit that time of my life for all the after-parties in the world.